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Bawdy Entertainers

Imagine you’re not reading an Internet article, but are instead experiencing a show-stopping dance number. 

After all, what more powerful method of communication is there than a catchy, humorous showtune that stays with you--especially if your message is a provocative one? Sophie Tucker, an international vaudeville and film star of the twentieth century, certainly knew and embraced that principle: she was a bawdy singer who used humor, sexuality, and music to communicate truths about the world around her. A modern heir to Tucker is Rachel Bloom, creator and star of the musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, who uses her hilarious show to comment on popular culture, Jewish culture, and modern sexist tropes. Both of these women used their platforms to subtly skewer their societies, and made their audiences laugh while doing it. 

Sophie Tucker in a Yellow Dress

Sophie Tucker was an international star of vaudeville, music and film who critiqued ethnic stereotypes, gender, and class as well as preconceptions about women’s sexuality through her performances.

Tucker, a daughter of Russian immigrants who grew up in Connecticut, ran off to New York in her twenties to make it as a singer. In the nascent days of her career, she was forced to perform in blackface by managers who were convinced she was too “big and ugly” to impress crowds as a white woman. Luckily, Tucker’s costume trunks were lost before a show in Boston; she had to perform without the blackface and the audience still loved her. She spent the ensuing decades touring both in the United States and internationally, performing songs with titles such as “I’m Living Alone and I Like It,” “No Man is Ever Gonna Worry Me,” “I May Be Getting Older Every Day (But Younger Every Night)” and her signature song “Last of the Red-Hot Mamas.” As her titles illustrate, Tucker’s bawdy, humorous act, hamming it up on stage as a voluptuous, sexual woman, was a way to shed light on the often puritanical mores of her era.

At times, Tucker went too far. In 1910, she sang a sexy tune called “The Angle-Worm Wiggle” onstage (use your imagination), which led to her arrest on obscenity charges. Happily, after the judge ended up throwing out the case, the show naturally skyrocketed in popularity. Tucker said that she never intended to shock anyone with her bawdy songs, and that her only intention was to sing about life as she saw it and to reflect the experiences of millions of people through her work.

Unlike other famous performers of her time, Tucker also never obfuscated her Jewish background during her long and illustrious career. In 1925, she started singing “My Yiddishe Momme” to Yiddish-speaking audiences around the United States; she brought the tune on international tours in the 1920s and 1930s, and she was introduced as “America’s foremost Jewish actress” in London and greeted with joy in Vienna and Berlin. By integrating her Judaism into her persona, Tucker became the forerunner of a century of brassy female Jewish entertainers.

Tucker went on to act in films in the 1930s and 1940s, but stage acting was always her first love. She performed right up until she died in 1966. She’s remembered as a beloved entertainer who not only lived to make people laugh, but also used her platform to provoke thought about the cultural and sexual values of her time.

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Rachel Bloom

Rachel Bloom, co-creator and star of the award-winning musical sitcom Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is heir to Tucker’s sexual, bawdy, humorous singing persona, with its cutting critique of gender roles and society.

Bloom was born in California in 1987, and moved east to attend New York University for college. She got her start in stand-up, released several comedy albums and popular YouTube videos, and catapulted to national fame with the premiere of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend in 2015.

Bloom’s show tells the story of Rebecca Bunch, a New York lawyer who follows (read: stalks) a high school ex-boyfriend to California in hopes that dating him will solve all of her mental health and intimacy problems. The show dips into dark themes including depression and arson; skewers sitcom, romantic comedy, and other pop-culture tropes; and confronts casual sexism, such as, well, how often the word “crazy” is applied to women. But like Tucker before her, Bloom makes some of her most pointed observations through the razzle-dazzle of song and dance. Every episode features several musical numbers, all spot-on parodies of various genres, that cover such topics as different body types (“Heavy Boobs”) and sexist fashion standards (“The Sexy Getting Ready Song”).

Like Tucker with her risque “Angle-Worm,” Bloom has also pushed the envelope beyond what’s acceptable even in the realm of sexual song-and-dance comedy. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is replete with references to “period sex,” but Bloom has tweeted that the CW won’t allow an entire song-and-dance number on this topic to air on network TV. Luckily, “Period Sex” is now available on YouTube for all to enjoy.

Also like Tucker, Bloom has also integrated her Jewish background into her career and persona. Rebecca Bunch is not just a nominally Jewish character a la some of the Friends cast; the character references Tablet Magazine, has a yenta-style mother played by Tovah Feldshuh, and is obsessed with the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire. In Season 1 she participates in a “JAP Rap Battle” and in Season 2 she attends a bat mitzvah where the guests are singing a song called “Remember That We Suffered.” Like Tucker before her, Bloom is a proud Jewish woman who has made a career out of using sexuality, song, and dance to confront and satirize the social mores of her time--as well as to entertain, of course. If she could, we imagine Tucker would kick her heels off and binge-watch Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and learn all about the problems of life in the new millennium. Maybe she would even sing along.

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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Bawdy Entertainers ." (Viewed on December 11, 2017) <https://jwa.org/powercouples/tucker-bloom>.

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